Obama's Macaca Moment

Blurring the line between trade and treason.

“Obama Just Got Less ‘Brown’ Friendly,” reads the Indian American blog Sepia Mutiny. The US-India Political Action Community, having elicited one tepid pseudo-apology from the Barack Obama campaign, then demanded an acceptably contrite expression of contrition. Barack Obama’s macaca moment is hardly the campaign killer that George Allen’s proved to be, but the spectacle of a Kenyan Kansan would-be president deflecting criticism from pro-trade Indian Americans is at least more interesting.

Last week, Obama’s campaign sent out a not-for-attribution memo to media professionals, slamming Hillary Clinton for courting Indians and the Indian American Community. The dossier, delicately titled “Hillary Clinton (D-Punjabs)’s Personal Financial and Political Ties to India ,” suggests that Clinton’s pro-trade, pro-India proclivities will compromise her commitment to Americans. It’s Lou Dobbs-level rhetoric, straight from the platitudinous fluff-factory known as the Barack Obama Campaign. Obama has since apologized for the memo, calling it a “screw-up on the part of our research team.”

To pro-trade types, the list of Clinton’s high crimes and misdemeanors will read as less than damning. “Outsourcing will continue,” Clinton apparently told an Indian audience in February. “We are not in favor of putting up fences.” When Lou Dobbs attacked the Senator for supporting Tata Consulting, the Indian company that pioneered IT outsourcing, Clinton countered, “Outsourcing works both ways.” The document charges that the Clintons have “reaped significant financial rewards from their relationship with the Indian community,” and draws a straight line from investments in Indian companies to a lack of support for protectionist trade measures. The implication is that Clinton will be more loyal to her Indian friends than American workers. Trade is apparently Clinton’s religion; Bangalore is her Vatican, with some money-grubbing, call-center-operating Indian her pope.

Both Clintons have courted the thriving, prosperous Indian American community, noting its disproportionate economic influence and potential as a donor pool. Indian Americans comprise less than 1 percent of the population, but they enjoy the highest median salary of any national origin group stateside. And the Clintons have been enthusiastic about increasing the size of that group: They have consistently supported increases in the number of H1-B visas, many of which end up in the highly trained hands of Indian IT professionals. Today, Hillary Clinton co-chairs the Senate India caucus. She has joked that she could be elected as the Senator from Punjab.

So is Clinton in bed with the enemy? It all depends on whether you consider trading partners enemies. The trader-as-traitor boasts a proud pedigree; a history extending from lawbreaking anti-mercantilists to John Kerry’s “Benedict Arnold CEOs.” And the juxtaposition of trade and treason has never made less sense. Offshoring will enrich some and hurt others in the short term, but the two groups will not be distinguished by the citizenships they claim. To whip up hysteria about outsourcing is to pit American against American; the Americans who benefit from lower prices, increased productivity, and job creation, against those whose jobs are lost to more efficient producers.

Barack’s (second) apology is thorough and appropriate, but he has flirted with these sentiments before. At a speech after the Virginia Tech Massacre, Obama explained that “There's also another kind of violence that we're going to have to think about. It's not necessarily the physical violence, but the violence that we perpetrate on each other in other ways.” What kind of ways? Well, for one: “the violence of men and women who have worked all their lives and suddenly have the rug pulled out from under them because their job is moved to another country."

This is an ugly, antagonistic vision of peaceful cooperation and the endless churning it effects. It plays into in-group/out-group atavism, eschewing the counterintuitive truth (an audaciously hopeful truth!) of gains from trade for the lazy fiction of a zero-sum game. It’s a cheap shot. And when a candidate who promises to rebuild alliances with the rest of the world characterizes mutually beneficial trade relationships as violence; when his campaign casts investment in allies as a failure of fealty; you’ve got to wonder what his actual diplomacy is going to look like.

It would be a mistake to confuse the posturing of presidential politics with actual policy. Obama’s views on trade remain buried in the equivocating palaver he advances as policy positions. Clinton voted against CAFTA and expressed opposition to the U.S.-South Korea free trade agreement. She has attacked the Bush administration for saying that outsourcing makes the economy stronger. If Clinton's rhetoric is less hateful, her policies may not be much different.

Still, the willingness of campaigns to stoke fear of peaceful exchange with outsiders is disconcerting. During the 2004 Democratic National Convention—Obama’s coming out party—the Illinois state senator spoke out against “those who are preparing to divide us, the spin masters, the negative ad peddlers.” It’s nice, I guess, that Obama wants to bring people together. Now perhaps his research team can find a social glue superior to a shared xenophobia.

Kerry Howley is a senior editor for reason.

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